Running Through the Night | March 15, 2010
Ultrarunning is full of intense and vivid experiences. Think of padding down a trail through a foggy drizzle all alone deep in a redwood forest. Think of pushing yourself up a steep slope one step at a time utterly beat up and just this side of quitting. Think of the moment you turn that last corner and see the banner marking the finish line of your first ultra. But no matter what you’ve done in the sport so far, one of the great ultra experiences still awaits if you haven’t run through the night.
Running trails at night is a whole new ballgame. First, of course, you bring the lights. Even on the brightest of moonlit nights, you can pass under trees or get into a narrow canyon and find yourself groping helplessly in the dark. Then there is the little matter of staying up all night, fighting off sleep, which would not be so bad except most times, you’re already exhausted and near the breaking point from running all day. There is the cold to worry about as well, which attacks just when you’ve run out of energy to generate your own warmth. And finally the night can get spooky, especially if you’re one of the many who find their eyes playing tricks on them. You glance at a rotting log and think, gee, isn’t that a corpse, or you’re convinced the hanging branch that jumps out of the shadows at you is a mountain lion.
But if you’re well equipped and well prepared, the night can be the best part of your run. Lights used to be such a big concern to runners. The flashlights that were available tended to be clumsy, heavy, and the batteries only lasted for about half the night. Nowadays there are numerous types of lightweight, bright, and long lasting lights that are relatively inexpensive and take much of the worry out of night running. I like to use a headlamp with a bright and dim setting and combine it with a lightweight handheld flashlight. The headlamp’s bright setting is good for tricky descents, while the dim setting, which is more than enough light for uphills and smooth stretches of flat trail, extends the battery life well beyond what is needed for a single night. A headlamp alone creates too little shadow on the trail and thus reduces depth perception. The flashlight held at waist level corrects this. Also the two lights back each other up should one fail. I even toss a small button light that weighs practically nothing into a pocket of my hydration pack just in case all else fails. It’s gotten me out of deep kimchi a couple of times.
Be sure to practice running with your lights before you’re actually in a race. You want to get familiar with all your lights’ features and settings, changing batteries and bulbs, adjusting straps, and the like. You’ll be surprised how different things look at night, even on a familiar trail. Shadows skitter around under your feet. Your depth perception is off. The light jumps around. It’s good to be used to all the visual issues and navigating down a trail in the dark before you have to face those things with the added exhaustion of a hundred mile race. Also remember to switch your lights off when you pull into an aid station, otherwise you’ll find volunteers shielding their eyes as they try to help you.
Sleepiness is another big issue with night running. You may be one of the lucky ones who are so excited by the race and the thrill of being out on the trail at night that they can pass right through the night without a problem. It’s more common though to feel very tired and sleepy at some point in the night. Some runners do well taking a few catnaps with a pacer or an aid station person assigned to wake them up. Other runners follow the “beware the chair” rule and avoid stopping at all for fear they will not be able to get back into the race. Try and “bank” some sleep in the week leading up to your race. Caffeine works for some runners, especially if you’ve limited your use of caffeine in the weeks leading up to the race. Stay focused on the need to eat and drink well, which will keep you busy and keep your energy level up. And be aware that no matter how badly your tail is dragging in the early morning hours, dawn and the growing light will almost always perk you up and get you moving again.
Finally, be forewarned that the combination of lack of sleep, lack of energy, sheer exhaustion from running for so long, and the tricky lighting situation, especially in the very early morning, might well have you seeing things that aren’t there. These eyes playing tricks on you visions can be very vivid. I remember one time running by some picnic tables in a grassy area behind some houses about 5:30 in the morning near the end of a 100 mile run. I was surprised at that time of day to see a little girl sitting at one of the tables with a tall cat sitting on the table next to her. I said hello as I ran by but wasn’t surprised when she ignored me. After all she shouldn’t be talking to strangers. Smart girl. But the strangeness of it soon struck me so I turned around to look, and sure enough, a shiver ran down my spine as I saw nothing but empty picnic tables.
In fact, I’ve become so used to “seeing” things as the night wears on that I can pretty much relax and just marvel at how creative my visions become. I once had a big fallen log in the forest morph from a person on a motorcycle, to a girl playing a piano, to a big dolphin jumping over a wave. I was pretty sure none of that was real. Some runners do report out right hallucinations, such as, runners jogging along beside them, or a fairly common story is seeing people lying alongside the trail. I once went by two runners shining their flashlights over the edge of a cliff and talking about seeing a cougar just below them. When I asked my pacer about what exactly the runners had said to each other, he didn’t know what I was talking about. So precede into your first all night run with the understanding that some strangeness is likely to be part of the experience.
But for all the challenges of running at night, the rewards can be substantial. There always seems to come a moment, when the moonlight and the stars and the quiet bring on a profoundly satisfying feeling. You’ve fought off the fatigue and the pain, and you’re well on your way to a finish. Then the night can seem magical.